Recently, researchers have dramatically shifted their focus away from studying managerial behaviours and toward the study of leadership styles. Lofty notions of leadership have captivated our collective imagination but as a result we’ve underappreciated and underinvested in the everyday management skills that organisations desperately need. For decades, business thinkers and executives have elevated the visionary, inspirational leader over the useful yet pedestrian good manager. But evidence all around us suggests that we devalue management practices at our peril. What we’ve come to denigrate as mere management is in reality incredibly difficult and valuable.
After the pandemic, the so-called Great Resignation has been quite telling in this regard. The people quitting in droves haven’t done so because their company’s top executive is insufficiently visionary or inspirational. Rather, people have quit lousy jobs, jobs that lack autonomy, variety, or opportunities to grow, jobs that pay poorly and don’t reward performance fairly, jobs that aren’t clearly defined and structured, and jobs that lack guardrails to prevent chronic overload and frustration.
They’ve also quit their direct bosses, whose lack of everyday managerial competence, trustworthiness, inclusiveness and care is no longer tolerable, they’ve quit organisations that have breached the psychological contracts with employees by violating the unwritten rules of trust, fairness and justice.
While the number of workers who have left jobs has been extraordinary, particularly in certain sectors, the reasons aren’t new and shouldn’t surprise us. Organisational researchers have been studying turnover for decades. The COVID-19 pandemic might have created a tipping point for what people will or won’t put up with at work, but it has not created or significantly changed the underlying problems—they’ve been widespread for a long time.
So, why are these problems so ubiquitous and enduring?
Because organisations and top teams downplay or ignore how hard it is simply to be a good manager to skillfully hire, engage, develop, coach, supervise, evaluate and promote people. Leadership workshops are widely available, but they tend to centre on high-level concerns and spend little to no time teaching these critical, fundamental skills.
Most managers aren’t held accountable for building and exercising them, nor are they given sufficient psychological safety to focus on developing these basics, which people often assume anyone with a brain can readily master. Instead, they’ve internalised the strong message that qualities like strategic vision and executive presence matter much more, leaving them and their organisations poorly equipped to deal with reality.
Adapted from a study by JIM DETERT, KEVIN KNIFFIN AND HANNES LEROY